If you’ve ever eaten at Waipouli Deli & Restaurant, consider yourself among Kaua‘i’s foodie elite.
The owners don’t advertise much, so finding out about them is mainly by word of mouth, through repeat customers and the internet. Tourists, who make up half of their business, find out about Waipouli through Yelp, Foursquare and Google.
On this particular day, Mike and Mary Tullus of Clovis, Calif., were dining at Waipouli Deli for the third day in a row of their five-day stay on Kaua‘i, vowing to return the next day. They said they heard about Waipouli from employees at their hotel.
Mike, who is adventurous food-wise, was having the kälua pork omelette. Although its Mainland counterpart would be pulled pork, Mike easily rattled off the differences between the two and could detect the smokiness of the kälua pork. He even knew that cooking something kälua style meant cooking it in an imu (underground oven).
“The food is substantial and it’s delicious,” he said. “Whenever we travel, we like to go where the locals eat at, the hidden gems.”
It’s praise like this that confirms what Sachiko Ikehara believes: “Everyone likes our home cooking.”
Like a mantra, it’s a phrase she repeated over and over during the course of our interview last month at the restaurant, located in the Waipouli Town Center in Kapa‘a.
Sachiko (Wakuta) Ikehara immigrated to Kaua‘i in 1972 at the age of 27. She was sponsored by her sister Yoshiko (Wakuta) Shiroma, who lived on Kaua‘i. Shiroma had been sponsored by her uncle and aunt, who had immigrated to Kaua‘i years earlier. They urged Shiroma to attend school here.
In time, Sachiko married Seio Ikehara, now deceased, who worked on the plantation. Together, they had five daughters and, eventually, nine grandchildren. She soon found a job at Big Save Market’s snack shop, while Shiroma worked at a friend’s restaurant. In 1977, the adventurous Ikehara told her sister that they should have their own restaurant.
“I no scared with customer, I used to that [at Big Save]; I know she can cook. One day I decide, let’s open restaurant together,” she said. “Two guys power . . . just open,” she added.
Their menu consisted of American and Asian dishes, but not Okinawan food, even though the sisters are from Okinawa. “Okinawan food . . . people not used to in Kaua‘i.” What makes it ‘Okinawan’ is her cooking style. “Everybody like our taste, everyone likes our home cooking,” she said.
They opened their restaurant in the Waipouli Complex. The use of the word “deli” in their name came from “delicatessen,” or take out food.
In 1982, Ikehara wanted to expand the business, but her sister wasn’t as confident about getting into a bigger operation. “Me not scared, I go for broke,” said Ikehara with confidence. Since she had the support of family and friends to help at the restaurant, Ikehara decided to go ahead with her plan and moved to the Waipouli Town Center. Her sister remained at the old location and renamed the restaurant Shiroma’s, while Ikehara kept the Waipouli name. After five years, Shiroma retired and closed her restaurant and then came over to help Ikehara at Waipouli Deli.Although both are now “retired,” they still come in to work every day.
“It’s not good to just stay home, gotta keep active,” the spry 70-year-old shin issei (new first-generation immigrant) said.
Since Waipouli’s menu, from breakfast to dinner, is so vast, there’s no need for daily specials. “Too much headache, too, figuring out what the special going to be,” Ikehara said.
The specialty dish at Waipouli is the Oriental Plate: shrimp tempura, BBQ steak, chicken cutlet and fried noodles. Also popular is the Banana & Mac Nut Pancakes.
[Side note: I had the corned beef loco moco, which is corned beef and hamburger mashed into croquette-style patties, served with rice and gravy and topped with an egg.]
Waipouli’s entreés come in three different sizes: large, half and rice bowl.
Ikehara explained how she came up with the description of “rice bowl” on her menu. “[It’s] what we call donburi.” Since customers didn’t know what donburi was, Ikehara tried to find a way to describe it.
“What I should put name? ‘Rice … in the bowl?’ So I put ‘rice bowl.’ This one I start 20 years ago and now look like everyone start having [it on their menu]. Now everyone knows,” she said with a laugh.
The restaurant is now in good hands with Ikehara’s daughter, Mina Kamibayashi, who runs the day-to-day operations. The staff of 30 includes two of Mina’s sisters, who all began helping their mother at the restaurant when they were in high school.
Mina continued helping out at the restaurant while attending Kaua‘i Community College. “The employees started leaving to work at the hotels, so I started helping out at the restaurant. Then it just became my thing,” she said.
“I tried working outside of the restaurant and I [realized how much I] appreciated working for my mom. I was able to spend time with my kids — going to all their sports events, bringing them to school and picking them up. If I worked for someone else, I wouldn’t be able to do all that.”
For now, Mina has no plans to make any drastic changes with the restaurant. “We’re still old-school. We don’t take credit cards.”
One change she made about two years ago, however, was the reprisal of her “Mina K’s” cookies. Baked by Mina herself, there are five different varieties: chocolate chip, chocolate chip-macadamia nut, macadamia nut, peanut butter and peanut butter-chocolate chip. She makes and sells about 100 bags per week.
“I started doing it a long time ago and stopped. When we couldn’t bring in cookies from our vendor, I started up again. Kaua‘i hardly has any omiyage [for visitors] to bring home, so I just wanted to try,” she said.
With 37 years of success behind them, it’s obvious that Waipouli Deli & Restaurant is doing something right.
“We can keep up because local and visitors
. . . everyone likes our food,” Ikehara said. “Home cooking-style, that’s why everybody loves Waipouli.”